‘not a valid url’

July 19, 2015

Still, after all these years, wishing I understood WordPress better. Sigh. It says my link to Facebook isn’t valid. That is as maybe. But it works!

If your experience is that it doesn’t (should you feel inspired to try it – even just out of devilment) do let me know. I will then go to the trouble of attempting to fix it.

However, from where I’m sitting it ain’t broke, so …

Review – Baby Boomers and Brutalism

May 19, 2017

Raw Concrete: the beauty of Brutalism by Barnabas Calder

This book came out in 2016. Through dogged perseverance, I have managed to get it from my local library twice now – it is very popular and far from cheap to buy. It’s popularity is slightly surprising as it is not an easy read, if you are not steeped in architectural forms (as I am not). Nevertheless, it is fascinating.

Barnabas Calder is an entertaining writer, although he makes no allowances for the tyro reader. I enjoyed his enthusiasm for concrete structures – and learned a lot about them: the different finishes that can be achieved with physical effort (eg chipping away the top surface with power tools – various – to expose the one underneath), the sturdiness of the builds and their fitness for purpose (which was usually social housing). I have not learned to love them, but I do feel I understand them better now. The sink estates that some of Brutalist designs became was apparently (and why would one be surprised by this) due to parsimony by the councils operating the estates rather than flaws in the buildings.

Some spectacular structures I have always thought were Brutalist, he does not mention (the ziggurat halls of residence at UEA, the Alexandra Road estate in Camden). I once spent a week ‘sleeping’ on the concrete bed extrusion in one of those hall rooms at UEA. Yes it had a mattress: but said mattress was only about three inches thick. I had recourse each night to copious amounts of alcohol in order to lie comatose and not attempt to turn over in the night. Turning over resulted in bruised hips because the mattress was so thin and the bed so hard, and scrapes on knees and hands from semi-conscious contact with the rough concrete wall. Calder speaks with admiration of built-in furniture of this kind – and describes how he spent a night in a Brutalist concrete sarcophagus in the ‘Hermit’s Castle’ at Achmelvich somewhere near Lochinver in Scotland. As this is a sort of pilgrimage for him, the night he passes there has rather a different quality from the week I spent on my concrete ledge. I could only pity students who had to spend whole terms thus. Those bed shelves must’ve been a powerful contraceptive for the student population.

So, an interesting and enjoyable book. But I have to take issue with the illustrations. Architecture is an art: art is best illustrated with pictures. It is true that the book has a goodly number of illustrations. Unfortunately they are all in matt greyscale on a buff stock, which makes them very muddy and reduces many of them almost to pattern, rather than picture. This I suspect was deliberate, to demonstrate the subtle textures and formwork in the concrete. OK. If you must. But there are two more serious defects with the illustrations: 1) a lot of them have no captions and 2) a lot of illustrations which would have been really helpful are not here. A building by Corbusier and one by Frank Lloyd Wright are needed. So is an example of a Modernist Thirties building which Brutalism succeeded post war, for comparative purposes. There are no portraits of any of the architects, even Ernö Goldfinger (who was, yes, the model for Ian Fleming’s villain of that name). More plans of the inside of places like Trellick Tower would have been helpful too (as Brutalist architects tended to create buildings holistically). But splitting the illustration of the ‘Hermit’s Castle’ across two pages was the worst idea of the lot – the crack in the middle makes it impossible to get any sense of the proportions or uniqueness of the building.

Nevertheless, Baby Boomers like me grew up with Brutalism and Barnabas Calder explains very ably why Brutalism was, what it was, and why that was a good thing. If you have any interest in the buildings around you, you will find this book rewarding. Just don’t expect to get much from the illustrations.

Sprouts

May 12, 2017

I wrote this poem nearly ten years ago, when Tesco stopped stocking loose sprouts for a period.  I wrote to them about it and wove the reply I got into the poem. Some few years after I wrote the poem Tesco began stocking loose sprouts again, although I can’t take any credit for that! I believe they still do so, although I don’t shop there.

I was sad to think this poem had gone out of date (although happy about improved sprout availability). Today I learn that Asda have done the same nul-sprout thing. I am chuffed to learn that the poem once again has a purpose. So here it is …

Sprouts

Fresh sprouts can be sourced all year round, of course
but we don’t carry stock outside the
Christmas period. There are always delicious frozen
sprouts available from our freezer range.

Our sprouts are mainly sourced from California.
No, there’s no need to pick them after frost.
That it improves the flavour is an old wife’s tale.
And flavour’s not our main consideration.
In order of priority we want:
first a good shelf life; next an attractive sprout –
the sprout should be a bright, consistent green.
The ideal sprout shape should be regular.
Here’s a diagram of our in-house sprout screener.
And here’s a picture of the perfect sprout.

I’m surprised that you should throw the old tag
‘pile it high and sell it cheap’ at us. We have moved on.
Now we prefer to demonstrate our pricing edge
with representative baskets, as compared with our competitors.

We strive daily to improve our shopping culture,
heightening consumer choice and pleasure.
The results are plain to see – well-filled trolleys
pass through our check-outs constantly.
To facilitate our efforts we train
in-house focus groups to simulate
our perfect shopping standard. Thus we know
fresh sprouts are only eaten around Christmas.

No, we don’t use consumer feedback to inform
our sprout decisions. Consuming units are
unreliable. No, we don’t call them people.
We don’t ask consuming units about stocking.
That’s too complex for them. We research
consumer preference all the time, but we
don’t ask consuming units. Consuming units don’t know
what they want until we give it to them.
They only want to know which aisle the sugar’s on.
Our focus groups provide much better data.

No, we don’t have a focus group for sprouts.

 

April 22, 2017

Love Songs of Carbon (The Yellow Earl: Almost an Emporer, Not Quite a Gentleman) by [Gross, Philip]   I found the first two poems of this collection very difficult and left the book alone for some months. But then I thought – either read it or take it down the charity shop (I do sometimes wonder who buys the books I leave at the charity shop – the last one was a bone-dry biography of Ben Nicholson: but I digress). So with a small sigh I re-entered Love Songs of Carbon – and wow! ‘Thirty Feet Under’ uses the imagery of a super-low spring tide to talk about ageing. ‘Mould Music’ is fascinating about the moulds that appear on all living things (except, actually, human bodies – if you have mould you need to see a doctor, stat). But I have now reached ‘A Love Song of Carbon’ (the title poem) and have been absolutely blown away by this about scattering the ashes of his parents on Dartmoor. I am now chomping through the rest with great enthusiasm. He uses as his colouring pencils not only the natural world, but also the part of the world I am from.

I sometimes write poetry and have always denigrated what I write as ‘just nature stuff’ because robins and storms and seasons figure largely in it. I may stop doing that (denigrating), because I now see that the natural world is a fine metaphor for the human condition. Why would it not be? We and it are all made of carbon, after all. Even my storms are distributing carbon from here to there.

If you have only read the first couple of poems you have absolutely not seen the best this collection offers. (And it has to be said that the cover does not beckon one in either). But what is inside that rather dull cover is akin to reaching the top of the hill outside Weymouth and seeing the sea sparkling in front of you. Go on! You will be rewarded.

Review of ‘The Chinese Spymaster’ by Hock G Tjoa

March 23, 2017

The author provided me with an e-file of this book in exchange for an honest review.

The Chinese Spymaster by [Tjoa, Hock]

I enjoyed this book a lot. I like to learn New Stuff when I read fiction and, for me, this book contained plenty of fascinating, fresh, information about the Chinese in general, particularly their intelligence agencies; the Pashtun people and their fragmented existence in Afghanistan and Pakistan; and the reaction of intelligence communities in countries such as Israel and the UK to their Chinese counterparts. Tjoa maintains that his depiction of the Chinese intelligence agencies is without foundation in fact. However, it is certainly founded on intimate knowledge of Chinese culture and rang very true.

The premise is that the Pashtuns are seeking to acquire a portable nuclear device to use as political leverage. They are talking to six different potential suppliers. (This is not a spoiler: it is part of the blurb.) It was an interesting and timely plot device. And enabled Tjoa to investigate the character of Spymaster Wang, who was a child during The Great Leap Forward, when blame and self-criticism were vicious tools of the state, and recognises that elements of that mindset still exist in China today. The ways in which Chinese friendships and families work are subtly different from western ways. As are their work relationships. Tjoa shows us this through Wang’s way of working and his social interactions.

At its best this book stands comparison with Le Carré’s early work. Spymaster Wang and George Smiley would very much enjoy each other’s company. Much of the book consists of people finding stuff out and puzzling over what it means. I prefer this sort of spy thriller to those where there is a high and bloody body count. There is action, but the espionage is more cerebral than physical.

A nice line in Chinese aphorisms runs through the book. I particularly liked ‘act without desiring the results of your action!’, a mantra apparently predating the Lord Buddha, taught by Japanese Zen masters, who were themselves taught by Chinese Zen masters.

By the end of the book I felt I knew considerably more about the way in which power is shifting towards the East in our world. It is moving not only towards China, but also towards various, post-Soviet, ‘Stans along the Silk Road and lining China’s borders – and, of course, one must not forget the firestorm which is the Middle East. Le Carré and others cast about constantly for new theatres of espionage and intrigue now that the Iron Curtain has come down. These days a refreshing breeze disturbs the Bamboo Curtain, giving us glimpses behind it. Charles Cummings touched upon nationalism among the Uyghurs (one of China’s ethnic minorities who also turn up in The Chinese Spymaster) in his 2008 book Typhoon. Tjoa also contemplates the rumblings of nationalism in this part of the world (might it begin, in truth, with the Pashtuns?) This is fruitful ground for the modern spy thriller writer.

There is rather more ‘telling’ in the book than the modern, western, fashion in fiction-writing favours. But in the context, it is probably the most economical way to keep the story moving.

The occasional shifts in where and when we were kept me on my toes. In one case we unexpectedly timewarped some ten years into the past. However, it very quickly became apparent that this was essential information. And how else was it to be offered to the reader?

Tjoa thoughtfully provides a ‘Key Words, Abbreviations and Institutions’ section, and maps. An aide memoire to the large cast of characters would also have been helpful. I had no difficulty with Hu and Yu. Nor with Wang, Tang and Owyang. The use of nicknames (apparently a Chinese schtick) helped. But I did have difficulty remembering who was who among the many minor characters. (I would make a lousy spy!)

If you like your spying bang up to date and more mental than action-based, I believe you will enjoy this book.

‘Impact’ by Rosalind Minett

March 4, 2017

Review of ‘Wisdom of Fools’, collection of short stories by Phil Harvey

February 26, 2017

**Originally written for “BigAl’s Books and Pals” book blog. May have received a free review copy.**

Wisdom of Fools: Stories of Extraordinary Lives by [Harvey, Phil]

 

Of this collection of eight stories by Phil Harvey six of them are contemporary, two are science fictionish.

Phil Harvey has other important career strands alongside his fiction writing. He is the author of non-fiction books about contraception, government snooping and libertarian values; he has set up a charity which implements family planning and HIV/AIDS prevention programs in developing countries; helped fund the Drug Policy Alliance, the Marijuana Police project and NORML; he works to raise awareness of freedom-of-speech issues and injustices caused by the war on drugs; and he runs a company which helps adults enjoy their sex lives. His compassion in and deep knowledge of these various areas informs his fiction, to advantage.

These are meaty stories. The author turns out to be one of those treasured finds in whom, as a reader, one may place absolute trust (although that was, perhaps, not completely true of the final story in the collection ‘Xa’s Pool’: it is still a fine story).

The eight stories are delightfully varied. Nevertheless, they do have aspects in common. I would describe them all as having both a visceral foundation and as many layers as an onion. Harvey sketches in characters at the same time as he develops the story – no hanging around to see the set and meet the cast here. Not a word is wasted, which is essential when constructing short stories. The story is underway from the first sentence: the pace and length are perfectly judged – and at the end is a payoff, which one had not seen coming, which is perfect and thought-provoking.

Harvey is a man who really understands the short form in fiction and uses it beautifully. The Amazon puff names several writers of short fiction in whose company these stories can stand. I hereby add Ernest Hemingway – yes, Harvey is THAT good.

My favourite (and it’s a hard choice) is ‘Virgin Birth’ which looks at particularly difficult moral choices that might surround a surrogate pregnancy – the sort of choices that I’ve never been encouraged to think about before. I found it revelatory.

This is a short book. One can absorb a story in a sitting. Even if short fiction isn’t your usual fare I urge you to give these a go. If you’re still wrinkling your nose at the idea, Harvey has longer fiction available. This is an author well worth discovering.

Review of ‘The Damascus Cover’ by Howard Kaplan

February 25, 2017

**Originally written for “BigAl’s Books and Pals” book blog. May have received a free review copy.**

The Damascus Cover (The Jerusalem Spy Series Book 1) by [Kaplan, Howard]

In the new introduction to this edition the author tells us that in its first incarnation, in 1977, this novel sat in the lower reaches of the Los Angeles Times best seller list for 10 weeks. This reissue, self-published by Howard Kaplan in 2014, has obviously been put out to tie in with the forthcoming film, now apparently due in 2017. (Although how they will manage without the late lamented John Hurt, who can say.)

For present purposes, perhaps the most important thing to know about Howard Kaplan is that he has a little experience of being a spy and a lot of knowledge about the Middle East. He has lived in Israel and traveled extensively through Lebanon, Syria and Egypt. He knows the life of which he writes.

This is an excellent spy thriller. Authors are so often recommended by publishers as ‘the next John Le Carré’. None of them are, of course. And attempts at comparison simply weaken the writing of those who are not. However, Kaplan is (or was), writing gritty spy fiction which stands genuine comparison with Le Carré circa ‘The spy who came in from the cold’.

I pride myself on being able to spot a plot twist even if it is secreted in a bag of fettuccini, but this book wrong-footed me not once, not twice but thrice. I like to be wrong-footed. Nor did those cunning plot twists feel remotely strained: as soon as the unexpected occurred one could see how it was the inevitable result of what had come before. Thus the book quickly gained a sense of menace: what has Ari missed? How will it come back to bite him? The spy-protagonist is no two-dimensional cipher: the reader goes with him into the abyss created by his own character failings, spiralling down and down, as shown through the action of the book.

The settings are Cyprus, Jerusalem and Syria – economically and vividly drawn. The Middle Eastern setting are topical (despite the book’s age). Aleppo, Beirut and, of course, Damascus all figure largely and are described at a time when they were still beautiful, multi-cultural cities.

The new introduction gives some insight into what has occurred in the Middle East since 1977, but it is not really sufficient for those of us whose knowledge of Middle Eastern politics and wars since 1948 may not be deep or recent. To enjoy this fully it will repay a quick and dirty Google of the main dates and conflicts in the area (there are quite a few) so as to have at least The Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War clear in your mind. This link may be of assistance: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_Middle_East#Modern_Middle_East

FYI: The prologue and final chapter comprise *graphic* scenes of torture.

There are a few typos which could have been put right when the text was readied for printing this time around. Or perhaps they were introduced at that point – who can say. They will not spoil your enjoyment.

Sound, Vision, Inspiration: How the music of David Bowie became a soundtrack to life by Alex Storer

February 22, 2017

Sound, Vision, Inspiration: How the music of David Bowie became a soundtrack to life

This is an interesting monograph about the late, greatly lamented David Bowie – with a kick ass cover image of Bowie on stage during the Outside tour – which quickly has the reader considering their own favourite Bowie music as well as, perhaps, considering which musicians provide the soundtrack to their own lives. I found it a fruitful line of enquiry. As well as a rundown of Bowie’s music it also encompasses the way we enjoyed music back in the Nineties – searching for music in town centre stores; the weekly music press we relied on for information. Then moves us into the internet age – the way CDs gave over to mp3 downloads; the whole world of music which became available online; magazines that are now only a distant memory; also those that survived, some on paper, some online.

If you are a Bowie fan then this account will jog your memory about lesser known albums and singles, videos and tours which you may have forgotten about. Bowie’s musical production did, after all span five decades, as Storer points out. It will remind you of your favourites and motivate the sort of conversations which start ‘yes, but also …,’ which could keep you up late into the night and require considerable consumption of alcoholic beverages.

I got slightly confused about when we were from time to time. But I understand that the story doesn’t unfold to best advantage in an entirely chronological way, and if that sometimes led to a certain confusion with when in Storer’s life we were, I could still see demonstrated the impact the music had on the author’s life.

I found it interesting that Storer contrasted the wait for albums and, occasionally, the hunt for them, with the ease we experience buying music now. I remember, in the Seventies, driving from Aberystwyth to North Wales on a pilgrimage to the only record store in the principality that stocked American imported blues music. Bliss! How little of the glorious music in stock I could afford. Woe! Being one whose favourite music was always on the other side of The Pond I don’t regret the passing of the physical purchase of music in the way that Storer does. But I can certainly understand it. The way we enjoy music now brings a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘easy listening’. Storer has done more than follow a major artiste through nearly 40 years of his recording career (with a nod to the decade before that), he has also reminded us how music was produced and how we consumed it. Also how Bowie was always in tune with the zeitgeist in the design of covers and new instrumentation, new methods of production and dissemination of his music.

If you are a Bowie fan you should certainly read this short treatise on the man’s music. If you are interested in how the production of music for mass consumption has changed in the past 30 years you will find much here to interest you. If you are interested in being prompted to think about who your own musical heroes are and what impact they have had on your own life, this is a good place to start.

Enjoy.

Review: The Museum Heist by Kameel Nasr

December 17, 2016

The Museum Heist: A Tale of Art and Obsession by [Nasr, Kameel]     

**Originally written for “BigAl’s Books and Pals” book blog. May have received a free review copy.**

Genre:  Crime

Description:  The crime at the bottom of this mystery actually took place. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston exists and works of art, including the paintings the book speaks of, were stolen from it in the small hours the day after St. Patrick’s Day, 1990. There art and life diverge: the real stolen paintings have never been recovered.

The fiction is partly a ‘what if’ about what might have happened to the art and how it might have been retrieved. But it is also about the sort of odd-ball who might have found the missing art.

The blurb claims the book “is a fast-paced, wily whodunit filled with intrigue, romance and stimulating scholarship,” which sounds pretty accurate to me. The blurb continues: “Author, Kameel Nasr, an international adventurer and art connoisseur, shines a penetrating light on the motives, habits, and sometimes less-than-noble intentions in the demi-monde of world-class art collecting. Along the way, he’s created a wonderfully satisfying mystery novel for anyone interested in historical fiction. The Museum Heist takes you on a roller-coaster ride of suspense, a meticulous portrait of the underbelly of the art world at its highest echelons.

Author: Kameel Nasr was born in Lebanon and emigrated to the USA as a child – since when he has turned his hand to very many spiritual, physical and creative pursuits. He describes himself as “an ebullient and upbeat New England writer, adventure cyclist, dancer, spiritual seeker, amateur astronomer, social activist, and patron of art and music. Over the past 25 years he has produced books and articles on cycling, international politics, early Christianity, and a Boston Cozy Mystery Series [of which this book is part]. His works have been published in several formats and languages and been cited in numerous articles and journals.”

See more about Nasr at his website, here: https://www.kameelnasr.com/about/

Appraisal: this book is the first ‘Lieutenant Lowell mystery’, published in August 2015. (A second book in the series – The Symphony Heist: A Tale of Music and Desire has been published recently.)

Nasr riffs delightfully on the real news-story (the theft from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston), producing a fantasy of increasing complexity. He mingles investigations into art fraud, forgeries and art thefts with rich information about artworks, known and lost, of the Classical world.

Although this is supposed to be Lieutenant Lowell’s mystery, Nasr’s main protagonist is one ‘Paris’, who lives his life according to Pythagorean principles, following the philosophical tenets of the Greek Classical world, their heroes and heroines, and their pantheon of gods. This develops, inter alia, into an interesting debate about pantheism and monotheism, which led me to ponder on the differences between the rational and the animal mind.

You may throw up your hands at this point and say that all this sounds like heavy going, but the way Nasr treats his subject matter you can begin the book knowing nothing about any of the above, romp along enjoying the story and emerge at the other end knowing considerably more about high art (its collections, forgeries and thefts) and Pythagoras’s Classical Greek world than you ever thought you would – having acquired the information as painlessly as you might consume Greek yoghurt.

So this is a book that is more than a crime novel, and certainly more than the ‘cozy mystery’ that Nasr claims it to be. It is a fascinating and sophisticated puzzle. If you enjoy historical fiction, and/or have a working knowledge of some of the better known Greek stories, e.g. Odysseus’s journey home to Penelope, Orpheus and Eurydice, Helen of Troy and Paris, this will certainly help you to get the most out of the analogies drawn between those tales and the goings-on in this modern heist novel. But lack of that knowledge is no barrier to enjoying the book.

And it has more to say about the human heart and that organ’s motivation than your average crime novel would be interested in.

Oh yes – Lieutenant Lowell does have a considerable role in the book. And his own foibles too. His ‘gut’ is as prominent in the investigation as that of Leroy Jethro Gibbs, if for rather different reasons.

This book is unusual in its subject matter; a bit like Paul Adam’s books about long-lost, priceless violins, but without the murders. If that is your sort of thing, then hie thee to the Classical world without more ado. Here is a link to it on AmazonUK. If that is not your local Amazon you’ll be redirected, I think.

FYI: The book is written in the present tense. This gives a sense of urgency to events and for some reason which I can’t quite put my finger on, imparts a pleasing ingenuousness to the character of ‘Paris’. However, it is a tense which can get wearing over the course of a novel-length read. Fortunately, this is not a long book. Of course, from time to time the author needs to look ahead or behind and, in the file I was working on, such time shifts were not secure which meant the reader had to spend a few minutes working out ‘when’ she was rather than getting on with enjoying the story.

Format/Typo Issues: there were rather many of these in the file I was working from. A scan through an Amazon sample indicates that at least some of these (particularly the more irritating, running oddities) have been fixed. Why would an author seeking positive words about his published opus send a file full of errors to a reviewer? Why indeed.

The infelicities above had to lose the book a star.

Rating: ****

 

 (Approximate page count: 230 pp)

the overused PSPOs …

October 31, 2016

… and their effect on dog walking .

31 OCT 2016 — I learned this morning (from Radio Solent, when I was doing A Bit about our ‘walking dogs on the beach’ issue) that we in Weymouth are not the only ones with increasing problems with where we may walk a dog and under what conditions. Over 2000 anti-dog (for want of a better word) Orders have been enacted since the government brought in Public Service Protection Orders (what used to be bylaws) and encouraged councils to use them. This is resulting in what Laurence Herdman of Radio Solent this morning called ‘ASBOs for dogs’, such as we are now contending with. Here is a link to some info about PSPOs: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2015/sep/08/pspos-new-control-orders-public-spaces-asbos-freedoms

The Kennel Club are getting involved, because cutting down, drastically, year after year, on where people can walk their pets is not, actually, healthful. Having a dog and walking a dog both have proven health benefits, which councils (not just ours) are ignoring in their rush to stop everybody doing everything everywhere.

This may become a national issue. Watch this space!